M. Dunbar

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From the Other Side: Tips from a Former Grants Manager


Back in the day, before I joined the Altum team, I worked as a grants manager for a couple of non-profits.  In those roles, I used different grants management products, which will remain nameless. Over the course of many years as a client I became very familiar with the products, the companies, and the other clients from the user group meetings. Altum eventually offered me a job (at a time when I was no longer a client) because they understood how invaluable it would be to have someone who knows the ins and outs of every day grants management and could appreciate the demands put on grants managers. For me, it was an opportunity to broaden my grants experience by becoming intimately familiar with more grant making organizations and their processes. (What can I say, I still consider myself a grants manager at heart.)

Now that I’ve crossed over to the “dark side”*, as my grants management friends like to tease me, I can pass along the tips I’ve learned from the vendor perspective to help inform grants managers about things to consider when talking with vendors about their grants management software:

  • Trust but verify. If there’s a particular feature that’s incredibly important to your organization, make sure you can see it during a demo. It’s not that the vendor would mislead about the system’s functionality (at least they shouldn’t), but it’s possible that the vendor thinks you mean X, but you mean Y. If it’s a robust system, you’re likely not going to see everything that the system can do during a demo, but if it’s a function that is necessary to your process, make sure you’re on the same page.
  • Ask for references, but take them with a grain of salt. Most vendors will be happy to give you a couple of references to check. That being said, just like job references, you’re only going to get names of people who they’re confident will provide a good review.
  • Know the role of your vendor contact. If your contact at the vendor is strictly sales, there’s less incentive for them to focus on “fit” as opposed to “win.” If you’re interacting with someone who has other roles at the company where they would continue to interact, in some capacity, with existing clients, they’re more likely to want to make sure you would be a satisfied customer as opposed to getting a win and moving on. Please note that this recommendation does relate more to small companies than large ones, but perhaps that in itself is something to consider.
  • Understand the product’s direction. It’s helpful to know what factors are considered when they build their product roadmap (i.e. deciding what features get added). One would hope it’s based on client feedback, and that’s what you’re likely to hear, but follow up by asking for examples of features they’ve added in the last year or two. If you’re nodding your head along as you hear the list, it’s a good indicator that their roadmap would align with your organization’s needs.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list of what you should be asking vendors, but rather topics frequently overlooked during the grants management software search. You should also be asking about: implementation, customizability, cost, specific features, security, etc. We’ve put together a vendor checklist to help you navigate the difficult journey of grants management software selection. Check it out here.


* I know Star Wars Episode 7 came out several months ago, but I couldn’t resist. I promise you (most) vendors aren’t like the Empire.


Image credit: http://static.tumblr.com/7587316435c3cb3376805226e1a3c8fe/swl9bzh/LoHnqpzgi/tumblr_static_9isao0czrkg8oow0c8kskwowg.jpg

Author: M. Dunbar
July 14, 2016, 11:19 AM

Six Tips for Looking for New Grants Management Software

Looking for New Grants Management Software

Evaluating grants management software options for your grantmaking organization can be a daunting task.  Not only are there many different software solutions to choose from with different features, benefits, and price points, but you also need to have an understanding of your organization’s processes, people, and needs to try to align them with whatever system you ultimately select.

 Keeping the big picture in mind can be hard when there are so many details and moving pieces to manage.  Here are some tips: 

  1. Talk to similar grantmaking organizations to see what grants management software they’re using and whether or not they like it. The more people you speak with the better chance you have of understanding the trends within your specific sector. Some solutions are a better fit for organizations with specific types of funding processes and needs. 
  1. Reach out to your applicants and reviewers to see if they have any recommendations or needs to keep in mind. Your goal should be to find a solution that benefits your users as much as your organization. Not only will this improve adoption and use after implementation, but it will help you sell your recommendation to the decision makers in your organization. 
  1. Make sure you understand the difference between your “must haves” and “nice to haves”. Of course you want a system that does everything, but keep in mind that no system has everything that everybody wants. And, the more custom a solution is, the higher the price tag. Understanding what you absolutely must have versus what you can live without will be crucial when narrowing the product list. 
  1. Engage both the decision makers and those who will use the system throughout the process. If everyone is on board in the beginning, you can prevent problems that may arise if a key player feels their voice hasn’t been heard when researching and selecting your proposed solution. 
  1. Keep an open mind regarding functions that are outside your existing process. Changing systems can present an opportunity to explore new and potentially better ways of doing things. A new system can have some features that might be able to remove steps from the process to save time, or make other improvements.  Often times, an organization can get caught up in existing processes and miss those opportunities. 
  1. When evaluating cost, keep in mind the time it takes for setup, implementation, and support. One of the goals of a grants management system is to allow you to reallocate the time you would have spent on clerical tasks to more meaningful, mission-related work. If you are going to spend a lot of time managing and supporting your users (i.e., colleagues, applicants, reviewers, and grantees), you may not be saving as much time, and therefore money, as you thought. Ease of use and good vendor support are key. 

What are your best tips?  Please use the comments section to add the tips you heard, or wish you had heard, when looking for a new grants management system.

Author: M. Dunbar
December 03, 2015, 02:05 PM

5 Tips for New Staff Making Grants Management Software Changes

Leading grants management software changes

Does this sound familiar? You recently started a new grants management job and are embarking on the tough journey of changing the grants management solution (or lack thereof). If only you could talk with someone who just went through this to get some advice…

Lucky for you, I did just that.

During the past year I worked with Sally* as she successfully convinced her new bosses and colleagues to change their grants management software. Afterwards, I spent some time with her discussing lessons learned and suggestions for others. Here are her pearls of wisdom.

  • Do Your Research: This isn’t merely market research, but also research within your organization. You need to understand the existing operations, including your organization’s unique challenges and inefficiencies. But, don’t forget to keep in mind what does work well. Once you understand the current state of affairs, you can start looking at different grants management solutions. Having learned what does and does not work well will help steer your conversations with the vendors. Make sure to get supporting data on your proposed solution that will help you “sell” it internally.
  • Expect Pushback: Even if, during your interviews, management expressed a desire to make changes to improve their process, don’t be surprised if these same individuals now seem opposed to the idea. Some people can embrace change in theory, but can’t seem to move forward when actually faced with it. This is likely to be even more the case if you weren’t tasked with this as the new hire.
  • Frame the Conversation: When responding to the inevitable naysayers, frame the conversation in terms of existing problems and how your solution will address them. This includes juxtaposing the existing software (if any) with the proposed software, and potentially other competitors, to show how your recommendation would have the most significant positive impact. Couching your ideas in that manner will make it harder for someone to reject them.
  • Engage Your Team: For some organizations, the grants management “team” is really an army of one. For those in a management position, you should involve your team during the entire process. You’re much more likely to get help in the areas above if they’ve felt it was genuinely a team decision and not a dictatorship. Additionally, having the support of the team goes a long way towards convincing the ultimate decision makers.
  • Set Expectations: Be careful when persuading your audience that you don’t oversell it. When you implement the new grants management solution, some things will work as expected while others may work better or worse. Don’t set yourself up for failure by promising the moon; you’ve done your research and your proposed solution is better, but nothing is perfect. When facing continued challenges, Sally closed the deal with, “Some things will work, some won’t, but we should give it a shot.”

*Name has been changed to protect the innocent.

Author: M. Dunbar
November 03, 2015, 01:49 PM

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